British support of Afghanistan fight not flagging, ambassador says

Vows commitment will be long-term

By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, acknowledges that the battle against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan is facing “very difficult and traumatic moments,’’ with American and British forces both suffering a surge of casualties.

But Sheinwald says public support for British involvement in Afghanistan is not flagging the way support crumbled for Britain’s participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Britain has suffered 22 combat deaths this month in a new offensive in Helmand Province, where about 4,000 US Marines were also deployed this month. American fatalities in July surpassed the previous month’s record of 28 in the Afghan war. With about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, Britain is by far the biggest contributor of forces in the NATO operation there after the United States, which is raising its troop levels this year to about 68,000.

Sheinwald spent the past two days in Washington with visiting Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who discussed Afghan policy with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others.

During a visit to Boston yesterday, Sheinwald said public opinion in Britain remains evenly divided on the Afghanistan operation. “People will rightly mourn every single loss of life,’’ he said. “But the public will be prepared to understand the high level of casualties if they see that our forces are being deployed in a strategy that is credible and which is starting to achieve success.’’

The ambassador said Britons understand that turning the tide will not be accomplished in a matter of weeks, “but over the next year or so.’’ He warned that Afghanistan would need global support for decades to develop the capacity to govern and protect itself.

“We’re going to have a very long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s future,’’ he said. “This is not just one year; this is going to be for decades. We’re going to help them get to a state which they can ward off the return of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That’s our strategic objective.

“We need to avoid the vacuum returning. And that’s what this huge effort is about.’’

On the issue of climate change, Sheinwald said Britain and its partners in Europe are looking to the United States for “leadership and ambition’’ as the world enters crucial negotiations on measures to slow global warming. He said US resolve on climate change “is a central part of regaining American leadership more generally in the world. And there won’t be a successful deal in Copenhagen without an ambitious American position.’’

He said it is crucial that the administration and the Senate give US negotiators “a real sense of energy and ambition’’ going into the talks in Copenhagen in December to craft a successor to the Kyoto climate change agreement. The degree of US ambition, Sheinwald said, will determine whether Western countries can persuade the major emerging powers, led by China and India, to join an aggressive climate-change strategy.